The Philosophy of Star Trek

Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on the philosophy of Star Trek. In this episode, we explore how the Star Trek franchise – through dozens of movies and more than 700 episodes of television – examines concepts like humanism, utilitarianism, the trolley problem and so much more!

Written by: Alec Opperman
Directed by: Richie Yau
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Sean Rowe
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon

The Philosophy of Star Trek

Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. Today we’re boldly going where…lots of people have gone. We’re talking about Star Trek. And before you all have a collective shit fit, we’re mostly focusing on the Star Trek reboot – not because it’s better, but because there’s just way too much original Star Trek to cover in one episode.

Anyway – the original Star Trek and its subsequent 8 billion spin-offs followed the adventures of the Starship Enterprise as it explored the depths of the Milky Way galaxy. Set roughly 400 years into future from its 1966 air date, Star Trek was a radical imagining of the future: One where the future’s prized starship is manned by a Russian, a Japanese-American, a black woman, an interracial alien and this guy.

The original Star Trek was based in humanism, a philosophy that is characterized by a profound faith in the innate goodness of humans and their ability to be rational. For creator Gene Roddenberry, humanity may well have a few growing pains, but will eventually grow up to be a responsible civilization bereft of war and poverty.

Part of this utopian vision of the future was an unapologetic stance towards cosmopolitanism. Not only did the show unite disparate races and nationalities on the bridge of the Enterprise — like including a Russian as part of the crew during the height of the Cold War — but the wild west of space served as a backdrop to play out morality-driven stories about the dangers of ruthless dogmatism, foreign intervention and racism. Even humanity’s history is frequently maligned, with constant reference to the numerous and pointless wars of the 20th century and the tendency for us, as a species, to act like a bunch of petulant children armed with nuclear weapons.

But if the original Star Trek was about embracing cosmopolitanism, the new JJ Abrams version is about reacting to the ramifications of that world.

The JJ Abrams Star Trek takes place in an alternate timeline that’s created when an elder Spock tries to stop a supernova that threatens to destroy the entire galaxy – it doesn’t make sense, so don’t bother – before it reaches the Romulan homeworld. Spock fails to save Romulus in time, but does eventually create a black hole to consume the supernova, which hurdles him and a revenge-driven Eric Bana back in time.

The old Star Trek used to ask really hard moral questions like: how can we put aside personal hatred with an enemy civilization for the greater good, or should we interfere in the natural development of a civilization? The new Star Trek’s are about interstellar temper tantrums. And space terrorists — in the spirit of our modern political climate. Nero, who blames the Vulcans for the death of his planet, gets all genocidal with a weapon of mass destruction. Khan, in the ultimate act of friendship, has a guy blow up a research facility and goes on a killing spree.

In other words, if the older Star Treks imagined the promise of a united humanity and its technological advancements, the new Star Treks imagine how scary all of that sounds. Miners who can drill holes into planets? Fuel sources that can devour civilizations? Time travel that still can’t bring back William Shatner? No thanks, science.

But let’s not get too grumpy. Behind all the nerd-rage-inducing nonsense, there is something to be learned.

One carry-over through the original series is the famous Spock phrase “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” For most, this is a pretty uncontroversial position. It is also one of the basic premises of utilitarianism: a philosophy promoted by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham that promoted behavior to bring the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest amount of people. Bentham turned his back on this principle when he decided to mummify his own body – thus providing nightmare-fuel for centuries of humans to come . But I digress. Spock is, more or less, a utilitarian.

In fact, in Star Trek: Into Darkness, the film goes through great lengths to show you what a dick move the alternative is. A guy murders a building full of innocent people to save his daughter, Khan will go to all sorts of murderous lengths to save his fellow superhumans, even Nero in Star Trek will try to exterminate the entire federation in the hopes of averting the loss of the Romulan people. But, despite these cinematic instances of black and white morality, there’s a lot of arguments that throw this idea into question, even if Spock claims it’s only logical.

Philosophers love to argue about the trolley problem. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a thought experiment where you find yourself about to witness a group of people get mowed down by a train barreling towards them. Luckily for the thought experiment, you’re in reach of a lever that can divert the train to another track. On that track is just one person. Do you pull the lever, thus killing one person to save multiple? Many people would pull the lever, but it still feels…icky. You’ve decided that the lives of many outweigh the needs of the few, but then again, now it’s DIRECTLY your fault someone is dead. Other versions of the trolley problem complicate this decision further, but in a much more uncomfortable way. Would you push a fat dude onto the tracks because he’s sufficiently large to slow down the train, and allow the group to escape? What if that fatty was a cancer researcher? What if the group of people you’re saving was actually the cast of “The Big Bang Theory?” The variations, as you may have guessed, continue ad nauseum. Determining the good of the many over the few, it turns out, is really hard. If pulling the lever is permissible, what about killing someone to donate their organs to five people in need?

In Star Trek, we see a different thought experiment: a simulation in which a captain is forced to die trying to save a stranded crew of civilians, or give up and look like an asshole. The Kobayashi Maru, as it appears to cadets, poses dilemma similar to the trolley problem – can you justify sacrificing your crew in the hopes of saving a ship of civilians? As it’s later revealed, failure is inevitable in the Kobayashi Maru. It’s a rigged game. By doing this, the Kobayashi Maru shifts a lesson about ethics into a lesson about human fallibility, and accepting no-win scenarios. In other words, it’s a trolley problem where everyone dies, every time.

Rather than trying to offer a moral solution to either problem, the film finds its answer in Captain Kirk, who just cheats. But in good storytelling fashion, this avoidance comes to bite Kirk in the ass after he encounters a real no-win scenario. In the Wrath of Khan, he loses his best friend, and in Into Darkness, he sacrifices himself.

So what’s the lesson here? If your answer is “the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many,” well, then hold on a second. Because the other premise of the Khan storyline is that utilitarianism, that needs of the many idea, is kind of what bred tyrannical Khan in the first place. While Khan was a dictator who robbed his people of freedom, he also managed to eliminate war under his reign. Does saving hundreds of thousands of lives from the devastation of war justify the loss of freedom, especially when only a handful of whiners miss it?

Star Trek, in one moment, will preach the merits of “being human” and all the value we ascribe to institutions like friendship and family, and in another moment will show us people murdering other people for the sake of friendship and family. The same could also be said of the purely logical alternative. While Spock is celebrated for his cold logic, plenty of Star Trek episodes show just how stupid cold logic can be. That’s one of the great thing about Star Trek, instead of strongly espousing one philosophy, it dives head first into moral ambiguity.

German philosopher Hannah Arendt warns of the dangers of pure, utilitarian thought. “The crimes against human rights, which have become a specialty of totalitarian regimes, can always be justified by the pretext that right is equivalent to being good or useful for the whole in distinction to its parts… And this predicament is by no means solved if the unit to which the “good for” applies is as large as mankind itself. For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically — namely by majority decision — that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof.”

Despite Spock’s assertion that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, Star Trek as a series is critical of such easy answers. Like Arendt, the show often warned against the dangers of pure utilitarian thought. In the Next Generation series, for instance, the most powerful and frightening enemy of the Federation is the Borg: a cybernetic hivemind that perfectly illustrates why Arendt was convinced that a “highly organized and mechanized humanity” was such a frightening prospect. What makes the Borg so terrifying is how, with a cold utilitarian logic, the collective excludes the needs of the few as it works out the most efficient way to serve the needs of all.

According to a purely utilitarian argument, Nero might have been a standup guy. You could argue that, had Vulcan never existed, the Romulans would have never placed their faith in spock. A strong Romulan empire without the interference of Vulcan might have been able to avert the disaster and boom: genocide justified. If Romulus is a planet of 18 billion people, as some Star Trek sources suggest, and Vulcan is a planet of 6 billion people, then why not?

Thankfully, Star Trek subtly answers this question. If you look at Star Trek: Into Darkness, it opens with two explosions. One to save a civilization, the other to save a child. In every utilitarian decision made by Spock and Kirk in both Into Darkness and the Wrath of Khan, the sacrificing of one for the many is always a personal choice. The 2009 Star Trek even begins with Kirk’s father piloting his ship on a crash course so that his crew, wife and child can escape. And this neatly avoids Hannah Arendt’s warnings of the dangers of pure, mechanistic utilitarianism. If you want to sacrifice one life for many: sacrifice your own fucking life.

That’s just one solution given to one thought experiment in a franchise that includes over 700 episodes of television and a dozen movies. George Lucas once described his rival franchise as the “little engine that could” as it survived for over a decade on fan enthusiasm alone. One of the reasons it has survived, and why it eventually spawned so many different reboots, sequels and prequels, is because it tackles the difficulties of modern life, the problems that come along with a world that is clearly more and more cosmopolitan every day, so directly. We’ve only scratched the surface of philosophical topics in Star Trek. There’s the prime directive, space fascists, omnipotent beings, and so many other angles to cover. So if you want to hear more, let us know in the comments.

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